This is a two-week issue of the Militant. The next issue,
no. 31, dated September 15, will be posted on September 3.
Strikers in Chile resist
effects of social crisis
Workers carry out first
nationwide walkout since 1986
Workers marching in Santiago, Chile's capital, are attacked by cops with water cannon during August 14 one-day general strike to protest deteriorating wages and social benefits, as well as rising unemployment while average workweek is getting longer.
BY SAM MANUEL
AND ROMINA GREEN
Hundreds of thousands of workers honored the call by the Central Workers Union (CUT) for a nationwide walkout in Chile August 14. It was the first general strike in the country since 1986, and came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that brought the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. Pinochets rule ended in 1990.
Chilean police used tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators and arrested hundreds. The government had pledged to crack down on the strikers with the full force of the law, according to a Reuters dispatch. Riot police were used to prevent 3,500 strikers from marching along a main avenue, the Alameda, near the presidential palace in Santiago, the countrys capital. Striking workers responded with sticks and stones, according to Agence France-Presse. At least 130 people were arrested that day. Additional protests and arrests were reported August 15, bringing the number of those detained to more than 300 people, two-thirds of them in Santiago.
Some were arrested while trying to block roads near Chiles copper mines, stated police reports. Other protesters were detained in at least three other cities around the country, including seven in the far southern city of Punta Arenas.
The strike was called by the countrys largest trade union federation to protest poor health insurance and other deteriorating social benefits, government proposals for more flexibility in the length of the workweek that now stands at 48 hours, and substandard working conditions at many private companies. In addition, workers demanded a raise in the minimum wage. Working people are also suffering from high rates of joblessness, officially now at 9.1 percent, and underemployment.
The CUT has 400 union affiliates and an estimated 640,000 members. Workers in construction, transportation, and health care, as well as teachers, taxi drivers, and most public employees, were among those who joined the walkout. CUT president Arturo Martínez said the strike was aimed at defending workers dignity, and called it a success. The union said that 80 percent of business activity was affected.
The government of President Ricardo Lagos, of the Socialist Party (SP), tried to downplay its impact, saying that participation was low. Lagos warned government workers who went on strike that they would be fined, calling the strike a lost cause.
Our salaries are very low, the minimum wage is 115,000 pesos [$165] per month, Eduardo Alarcón, a student, told the London Guardian.
We had lots of hope for this socialist government, Maria Guzmán added, but they have only worked with the right and the businessmen and not with us, the poor.
The Chilean daily La Nación said the government plans to prosecute all those who committed illegal acts in violation of the countrys antiterrorism law. According to the Chilean press, among the 15 injured in clashes between cops and demonstrators, the big majority are police officers. Minister of the Interior José Miguel Isulza said the government plans to take action to prevent similar incidents on September 11, the date of the 30th anniversary of the 1973 coup when Pinochet led the military to overthrow the elected government of Salvador Allende.
Allende, a Socialist Party left-winger and longtime supporter of the Cuban Revolution, had been elected president of Chile in 1970. He was the candidate of Popular Unity (UP), a coalition dominated by the SP and the Communist Party. UP also included the bourgeois Radical Party, the United Peoples Action Movement (MAPU), a left split from the Christian Democrats, and two smaller parties.
Allendes victory reflected a broad radicalization of the Chilean masses. When the capitalists began to sabotage production soon after the UP victory, workers occupied the plants and continued to produce without the bosses. Working people also began taking over distribution of goods. In many workers districts, organizations known as cordones industriales (industrial councils) began coordinating the struggle. Every time there was an opportunity, workers came out en masse against the right wing.
Under such popular pressure, the UP government implemented some far-reaching reforms during its first year in office. These included nationalization of many banks and textile mills as well as foreign holdings in copper, nitrate, iron, and coal. A land reform was begun and many peasants began seizing land. And the government opened diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba and opposed the U.S.-led war against Vietnam.
Despite Allendes radical rhetoric and some important anti-imperialist actions, UP was a class-collaborationist coalition, a popular front. It subordinated the struggles of the workers and peasants to subservience to capitalist parties and forces. At critical points it brought top members of the officer corps into the government as a guarantee to the Chilean rulers. It tried to justify its actions on the basis of bourgeois legality.
U.S. imperialism and the local ruling class, however, didnt waste much time with bourgeois legality. Washington played a direct role in a destabilization campaign aimed at toppling the UP regime. Following Allendes election, all U.S. aid to Chile was cut with the exception of military aid and training for the Chilean armed forces and for bankrolling counterrevolutionary strikes and boycotts, such as the bosses strikes headed by truck owners that paralyzed the economy. The ensuing class battles ended three years after Allendes election in a bloody coup. Thousands of workers, political activists, and revolutionaries from other countries who had been granted asylum by the UP regime were murdered. Allende himself was killed as he fought to defend the national palace against the coup plotters. It was a terrible setback for working people .
Midway through the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean rulers began a wide-ranging series of economic reforms. Among these were privatization of pensions and the entire social security system, and telecommunications. A series of steps were also taken to eliminate barriers to foreign investment and trade, making Chiles economy one of the most open to imperialist penetration in the world.
By 2001 nearly all of Chiles telecommunications market was supplied by imports, largely from the United States.
The energy industry, especially electricity, was also privatized beginning in the 1980s. The country now imports nearly 95 percent of its oil. In February 2000 workers who drive trucks, buses, and taxis threatened job actions to protest the governments decision to pass on to them rising prices of fuel imports.
The main beneficiaries of the new pension plan, according to the April 17 St. Petersburg Times, are the mutual fund managers. By 2010 as many as 60 percent of retirees will qualify for no more than the minimum pension of $110 per month. Some 42 percent of workers arent covered by any pension plan.
The Social Security System was privatized in 1981, and unemployment insurance in October 2002. Recently, while unemployment has increased the average hourly and minimum wage has declined and the number of part-time workers has grown.
The current government headed by SP leader Lagos has been touted as heading one of the most stable economies in Latin America, which is recovering from a downturn in 1999. Chile has been lauded by imperialist financial institutions as a model of capitalisms success for Latin America over the last decade. Recent events put this claim into question.